Sights and Sounds of Commencement 2010
On May 7 and 8, five international music legends gathered with 850 Berklee graduates for a celebration of music careers in full bloom and of those about to blossom. The premier songwriting duo of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, world-music star Angélique Kidjo, Spanish flamenco guitar virtuoso Paco de Lucía, and jazz piano icon Kenny Barron attended the commencement ceremony to receive Berklee honorary doctorates.
The first event of the weekend was a concert tribute to the honorees held on Friday, May 7, at Agganis Arena at Boston University. The evening’s music director, Professor of Ensembles Ken Zambello, told the audience that this year’s concert included an unprecedented 120 singers, instrumentalists, and dancers. The show opened with the anthemic disco hit “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” and an energetic version of Kidjo’s “Wombo Lombo”—complete with African-garbed dancers.
A 12-piece Paco de Lucía Tribute Band that included strings, French horn, woodwinds, and various percussion instruments followed with three pieces penned by de Lucía. The ensemble offered a unique take on flamenco music (which was played sans guitar) with Spanish pianist Ariadna Castellanos Pliego playing a mesmerizing solo in “La Barrosa,” and Ali Amr contributing to the music’s exoticism by vocalizing and playing the qanun (a zither-like Middle Eastern instrument) on “Sólo Quiero Caminar” and “Zyryab.”
The salute to Barron featured alto saxophonist Abye Osman and pianist Jordan Seigel deftly navigating the thorny changes to Barron’s “Traveler.” Tenor saxophonist Chris Weller as well as Seigel and Osman traded choruses on Barron’s up-tempo swinger “Voyage.” Barron then thrilled the crowed by sitting in on his introspective ballad “Phantoms,” which featured vocalist Nadia Washington and Barron’s granddaughter Nikara Warren, a graduating senior, playing vibes.
The renditions of dance tunes and ballads by Gamble and Huff and Kidjo kicked the energy up a notch. Gamble and Huff’s “Wake Up Everybody” got a soulful treatment from alumna and former American Idol contestant Ashley Rodriguez. The student-directed a cappella vocal group Pitch Slapped offered its slant on “TSOP” (“The Sound of Philadelphia”) and “Love Train.” A vocal trio comprising Orlando Dixon, Mario Guthrie, and Kenneth Devon did sweet justice to an O’Jays medley, complete with dance steps and the right outfits.
Kidjo’s grooving “Move on Up” was enhanced by African percussionists wearing native dress. Liz Longley and Sentirenla Lucia dueted on Kidjo’s lovely “Naima.” The medley of “Lonlon” and “Afrika” by Women of the World (a vocal quintet featuring singers from five countries), proved irresistible to Kidjo, who joined them singing and dancing across the stage, to the audience’s delight. The finale, Gamble and Huff’s “I Love Music,” brought all featured vocalists back out to trade lines and take well-deserved bows.
The next morning, the five honorees appeared onstage at Agganis Arena, surveying a sea of caps and gowns. The formalities kicked off with welcoming remarks from Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Larry Simpson, and addresses from Professor Henry Tate and student speaker Jack Shenker. Honoree Kenneth Gamble delivered the commencement address and told the graduates, “It’s wonderful to be young and gifted. The future is like a piece of clay. You have the ability to mold it any way you want. Learn from yesterday, live today, and do great planning for tomorrow. Reality is the key to this business. Leon Huff and I had to learn very quickly that this is a business.”
Gamble also encouraged graduates to be more than songwriters, guitar players, and business people, but to become ambassadors of love through their music. “Give to the world the best that you have, and the best will come back to you,” he noted.
President Roger H. Brown then presented degrees to each recipient. After accepting his degree, pianist Kenny Barron told the audience, “First of all, I was blown away last night by the performance here.” He characterized the recognition as a great honor. “And to be sharing this platform with my granddaughter is a double honor and double pleasure.”
Paco de Lucía recalled that in his youth, flamenco was primarily the music of his people in Andalusia, Spain. “Now its sound has been extended all over the world, and celebrated here at the most important music college in the world. I feel that today is a triumph. . . . This honor legitimizes the art that I have been defending all my life.”
Taking the mic, Leon Huff said, “I give honor to God for allowing me the time to come here for this award. I’m humbled and honored to receive it.” He also thanked the college and complimented the students who performed his music so deftly the night before.
Angélique Kidjo opened by telling the graduates that she had a ball onstage with them at the concert. She shared advice from her mother about performing. “She said when you hit that stage, you have to be ready to be naked spiritually,” Kidjo recalled. “It’s not about how beautiful you look on stage; it’s who you are in your soul and what you are willing to tell other souls who come to hear you play. Show it, let it shine.” With these words ringing in their ears, the new graduates left to seek their places in the music world.